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Student Essentials

How to Choose Your Courses Wisely

Amy Louise Jarmon

How to Choose Your Courses Wisely

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Most law schools require a set curriculum throughout the first year, though a few schools allow one or two elective courses. When registering, some law students overlook important factors when choosing courses. Wise selection can optimize grades as well as increase preparation for the bar exam and future legal practice.

Consider Your Three Years of Courses as a Collective

Depending on the law school, you will register for a semester or for a full year at one time. In either scenario, consider your 2L and 3L courses as a whole rather than as disjointed semesters. Evaluate your prior semesters to gain insights into learning experiences that were most beneficial to you. Once you have determined what factors increased your engagement, learning, and success in the past, use those same factors to choose courses. You need to plan ahead to get maximum impact from your courses. What you choose each semester will affect later semesters: remaining credits translate to heavy or light course loads; remaining required courses limit elective credits; prior grades often determine eligibility for externships or clinics; and course combinations impact the hours left for employment or extracurricular activities.

Select a Balanced Course Load

Students may either overload themselves or underestimate their abilities. Be sensible about the number of credit hours and the course combinations you can handle successfully. For example, typically two four-credit courses balanced with one-, two-, and three-credit courses would provide the best chances for academic success because of the greater in-class time and heavier workload in four-credit courses. Avoid combining multiple courses that you anticipate being very difficult for you; spread them over several semesters. Balance paper and exam courses during a semester. Six or seven exams during finals may be exhausting. Writing multiple papers that are 30 pages long at the same time could require too much self-discipline and organization for some students. If you had lower grades than you wanted the prior semester, choose a course schedule that will help you excel—courses that interest you and will give you time to improve your study strategies and grades—do not attempt to be a super-student with the maximum credits allowed and the most difficult courses.

Look out for Courses That Meet Requirements or Practical Considerations

The length of the list of specific courses required for graduation varies among law schools. Additional requirements that can be fulfilled with a variety of courses or experiences also need to be considered: advanced research and writing, skills development, and pro bono participation. Watch out for prerequisites for later courses and experiences. Clinics, advanced elective courses, and a “bar card” for third-year employment are examples of common prerequisite situations. You want to consider elective courses that prepare you for subjects on the bar exam. Think carefully about which subjects you would prefer to learn in a classroom setting rather than during bar review. Explore areas of the law that you think you may want to practice. If you have a legal passion already, then plan to take multiple courses in that area. When you are attending law school with a family to consider, choose a schedule that will allow time for your responsibilities and commitments to them.

Take Courses That Interest You That Benefit Your Learning Style

Think about how you learn best and seek out course experiences that match those attributes. If you learn best through hands-on experiences, register for those course opportunities: clinics, externships, negotiation, trial advocacy, and drafting courses. If you prefer discussion classes, sign up for a seminar. If you are planning to be a solo practitioner, register for practice-focused electives: law practice management, law practice technology, and starting your own practice. If you flourished previously with a professor’s teaching style, consider another class with that professor.

Learn as Much as You Can about Courses and Professors before You Register

Make an appointment to talk with the professor about a course: topics, assignments, exam formats, and other aspects. Ask students who have had the course with that professor for information. However, get multiple opinions because one student’s less-than-enthusiastic experience was likely positive for another student. Students vary greatly on exam formats they excel at, classroom techniques that engage them, and preferences they have for multiple assignments or one grade at the end. Decide whether the course matches your needs.

Think about the Research and Writing Skills You Want to Have before Your First Job

Students who struggled with the first-year courses may be tempted to avoid further courses requiring skills that are not their strengths. The wiser choice may be to jump back into the fray. Research and writing are mainstays of an attorney’s work. Additional courses during law school can improve skills in a less–threatening environment than later legal employment. In addition to advanced research and writing courses, seek out doctrinal courses with paper or drafting requirements. Alternatively, attend workshops on these topics offered by your school’s legal writing faculty, law librarians, or writing specialists. Some law schools offer certificate programs in legal research and writing to recognize students who complete additional hours in advanced seminars.

Find out about Legal Specialization Opportunities at Your School

Many law schools offer curricular tracks for students who want to take more courses clustered around specific areas of legal expertise. These tracks come under a variety of names; concentrations or certificates are common designations. These programs typically require students to take courses from a preapproved course list and complete a certain number of credits successfully. Students at some schools also participate in symposia or other nonclassroom experiences. Examples of specialization tracks would be health care, business, tax, and environmental law. Students who already know their legal interests can obtain an additional qualification during law school to better prepare for matching employers’ specific needs than other law graduates. Even if there are no formal programs at your school, you can design your own specialization with the assistance of faculty members. Career services can also provide information on skills and courses that employers seek when hiring for a specialization.

Expand Your Global Perspective

Law practice has become a global endeavor so much that many legal employers highly value graduates with a global point of view. By taking comparative and international law courses, you challenge your American viewpoint on the world. Study abroad opportunities are so prevalent that students can study in almost every corner of the globe. Many programs provide optional internships with native legal employers as well as classroom credits. A summer or semester abroad will introduce you to different legal realities, cultures, and languages. Living abroad even for a short time will test one’s ability to adapt to a new environment. Learning another language could also be a plus in the legal market if you have the time and inclination.

Students who plan their academic selections carefully have the opportunity to increase their motivation, optimize their interests, explore new areas of the law, work toward future employment goals, and prepare to be practice ready. By being fully engaged in their academic planning, students can increase their chances for academic success now and for career success later.